The Golem and the Jinni

Chava is a golem, a creature made of clay, brought to life by a strange man who dabbles in dark, Kabbalastic magic. Ahmad is a jinni, a being of fire, born in the ancient Syrian Desert. Trapped in an old copper flask by a Bedouin wizard centuries ago, he is released accidentally by a tinsmith in a Lower Manhattan shop.

Struggling to make their way in 1899 New York, the Golem and the Jinni try to fit in with their immigrant neighbours while masking their true selves. Meeting by chance, they become unlikely friends whose tenuous attachment challenges their opposing natures, until the night a terrifying incident drives them back into their separate worlds. But a powerful menace will soon bring the Golem and the Jinni together again, threatening their existence and forcing them to make a fateful choice.

Marvellous and compulsively readable, The Golem and the Jinni weaves strands of folk mythology, historical fiction, and magical fable into a wondrously written inventive and unforgettable tale.

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I read The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker for the reading challenge (I am so behind on reviews. You have no idea.) at the suggestion of Glaiza @ Paper Wanderer. I am so glad I took the recommendation, because I LOVED it.

This book took me utterly by surprise. I went in expecting a supernatural romance and instead I got this stunning novel of ideas wrapped in gorgeous prose and a romance that engaged me more than any I have read in a long time.

It’s a novel consumed by the question of free will: do we have it? Should we have it? What does it mean to have it? The Golem, having been made to serve others, something she would have done for the entirety of her existence were it not for the sudden death of her master –  who she was magically bound to obey without question –  is suddenly thrown into an unknown world of independence. She has free will now, something she was never supposed to have, and with it she has to build herself from the ground up. She has to reverse engineer values, beliefs and desires while trying to pass as human to the people around her. She knows she has the potential to endanger and hurt people, and so she builds her entire life around avoiding that possibility. She is the foil to the villain of the novel, who was told as a young man training for the priesthood that he was destined for hell, and so lived a life worthy of that ending, determined there was no other option.

Wecker also uses her novel as a vehicle to have a really interesting conversation about faith. The characters are a mix when it comes to faith – one is a Rabbi, and utterly sure of his beliefs, others are atheists and still others are a little mix of the two. Either they don’t believe, and they kind of wish that they did, or they do believe but are plagued with doubt.

“What do you think?” he pressed. “Do you believe in their God?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “The Rabbi did. And he was the wisest person I’ve ever met. So yes, maybe I do.”
“A man tells you to believe, and you believe?”
“It depends on the man. Besides, you believe the stories that you were told. Have you ever met a jinni who could grant wishes?”
“No, but that ability has all but disappeared.”
“So, it’s just stories now. And perhaps the humans did create their God. But does that make him less real? Take this arch. They created it. Now it exists.”
“Yes, but it doesn’t grant wishes. It doesn’t do anything.”
“True,” she said. “But I look at it, and I feel a certain way. Maybe that’s its purpose.”

It’s so hard to have an interesting conversation about faith. Emotions run too high, and each side feels like the other’s belief system is a threat to their own, rather than simply a different one (I will hold my hand up and say I am SO guilty of this). What I really liked about the back and forth about faith – in God or in no God – and doubt was the lack of a good/bad dichotomy. The Rabbi helped the Golem because he believed God sent her to him, while his nephew, a staunch atheist, cared for the homeless through the shelter he ran because walking the streets of New York he encountered a problem he thought he could help solve. Like the Golem said, maybe the point isn’t so much the faith itself – something people who believe would very much disagree with me about, I know, and I’m not trying to offend anyone – but how to makes you feel. And, so long as that’s love – and sadly it so often isn’t for both people who believe in God and people who don’t – then you’re basically on the right track.

In The Golem and the Jinni, Helene Wecker has created a riveting story and a vital conversation about faith and difference that feels particularly vital in this time of conflict and wilful misunderstanding.

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Want

Jason Zhou survives in a divided society where the elite use their wealth to buy longer lives. The rich wear special suits that protect them from pollution and viruses that plague the city, while those without suffer illness and early deaths. Frustrated by this city’s corruption and still grieving the loss of his mother, who died as a result of it, Zhou is determined to change things, no matter the cost.

With the help of his friends, Zhou infiltrates the lives of the wealthy in hopes of destroying the international Jin Corporation from within. Jin Corp not only manufactures the special suits the rich rely on, but they may also be manufacturing the pollution that makes them necessary.

Yet the deeper Zhou delves into this new world of excess and wealth, the more muddled his plans become. And against his better judgement, Zhou finds himself falling for Daiyu, the daughter of Jin Corp’s CEO. Can Zhou save his city without compromising who he is or destroying his own heart?

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Like any kind of fantasy, I’ve always had something of a rocky relationship with dystopia. I read The Hunger Games back when I was 17 and I liked it, but not as much as everybody else did. I got through the first couple books of the Divergent series, but never bothered finishing the trilogy, realising in the gap between the second and third books that the only reason I had read the first two was because of a romance I didn’t really care about any more.

This pretty much sums up my relationship with YA dystopia:

side eye

I felt like most of what I read was a melodramatic vehicle to deliver a lacklustre love triangle in which neither of the men the girl was torn over (and they always were men) were interesting. So when I read Aila @ One Way or an Author’s review of Want by Cindy Pon and, contrary to my experience of YA dystopia so far, it sounded super relevant and interesting, I was intrigued.

Want did not disappoint. One of my favourite bloggers, CW @ Read Think Ponder once wrote a fantastic blog post about the role of dystopic fiction – which I totally recommend that you read – and the part that most stuck in my mind was her definition of what the genre actually is. She wrote. “…dystopia should contain some social or political commentary, such as discourse on government, social institutions, or have societal implications.”  Back when I first read that, the reason behind my general antipathy toward dystopia – that I had never really bothered analysing before – hit me: the reason I didn’t like most dystopia is that it’s an important genre that had become watered down into something completely irrelevant. Divergent just doesn’t stand up well against A Handmaid’s Tale, I guess.

This is why Want is a breath of fresh air wrapped in a story that is depressingly familiar and anxiety-inducing in its prescience. Set in a futuristic Taipei, it tells of a society in which the majority (known as meis, meaning ‘have nots’) die at young ages due to air poisoned by pollution, while the richest 1% (known as yous, meaning those who have) are safely encased in breathing apparatus that costs millions to obtain – so is completely out of reach of the normal person. After a successful kidnapping and ransom venture, Jason Zhou and his fellow 99%-er rebel gang infiltrate the world of the yous in order to take them down.

Pon looks at current issues with climate change and takes them to the farthest reaches of disaster. In her Taipei – much like in current times – cleaning the air is a difficult, but by no means impossible task. It’s made impossible by those with the ability to help – the yous – refusing to do so because 1) the situation doesn’t affect them and 2) they financially benefit from it. The rich are protected from the noxious air by the suits made by the Jin Corporation,  so they continue to buy from other rich companies that are in turn run by people with their own Jin Corporation suits… and on and on and on with one result: nothing changes and meis continue to die.

Watching people die isn’t enough of a motivation for the yous to make changes – in part because they don’t often actually see it. The yous and the meis live lives so utterly separate it’s as if the yous have lost the ability to recognise the humanity of the meis and their suffering at all, let alone to see it as their problem. It is, ultimately, ignorable. It would be nice to think we non-fictional people would never be capable of this kind of passive cruelty, but the fact is we’re doing it all the time. Children in the Democratic Republic of the Congo mine cobalt which is then used to make our smart phone batteries, while countless rivers in Asia are completely destroyed by the textile industry, just one aspect of the destruction caused by demand for fast fashion. So much of our day to day, from clothes to technology to food, comes at the expense of people in countries far away from our own, people living below the poverty line who don’t have a platform or the resources to make themselves heard, and therefore are not seen. Just like with the yous and the meis in Pon’s world.

Pon however, takes it a step further and complicates the story by demonstrating that this lack of empathy indeed goes both ways. When Zhou joins the you community and meets Daiyu, an heiress, he is thrown off when he finds she is a nice person, albeit one complicit with the status quo through being born into a privileged you family. What had previously seemed like an easy task, bring down Jin Corp and the yous with it was harder when, rather than a nameless, faceless hoard he could easily hate, the yous turned out to include people like Daiyu, a decent and smart human being. Through Zhou’s relationship with Daiyu, Pon explores the polarities we live in and how when communities actually mix with one another, so many of them prove to be false.

In Want, Pon weaves a rich world that is compelling and painfully relevant, but cautiously optimistic in its approach to some of society’s greatest problems.

Reading slump solutions

Today I want to talk about the biggest enemy of the book blogger. It’s not Netflix, an active social life, demanding job or insecurity about your place in a community that you’re increasingly uncomfortable with.

No, it’s that most dreaded of non-physical ailments: the book slump.

Characters who would have usually lit up your life for a week lie dead and limp on the pages, plot twists that would have you reaching for your phone to tweet a GIF in reaction seem pedestrian at best. Worst of all you might find yourself reading the blurb of a YA contemporary in which two young people (her ‘too skinny’ and him possessing a surprising amount of sexual prowess for a 17-year-old*) fall in love under adverse circumstances (recently traumatically deceased parent/best friend/ acquaintance from school they just can’t forget)and think it seems… stupid.

*just me?

Obviously such a situation can’t be allowed to fester. So pop the kettle on, light up a pumpkin spice candle, ease your feet into your slippers and relax. I got you.

Bookstagram

Bookstagram is without a doubt one of the dumbest things we do in the book community. It’s all aesthetics and no substance, which is pretty much the opposite of what reading is about. But I love it. Looking at aesthetically pleasing, highly stylised book pictures makes me imagine the aesthetically pleasing, highly stylised life I might have if I were only reading more.

Booktube

If there’s one thing that gets me more pumped than pretty pictures of books, it’s videos of smart people being excited about books. Kayley Hyde is my favourite, if you’re in need of recommendations.

Newsletters

If you’re getting lost in a novel, maybe you need something a little shorter. Everyone and their mother has a newsletter these days. Newsletters can take the form of something like Lenny, a feminist e-zine that hits your inbox once a week with a treasure trove of original writing by women ranging from personal essays to interviews to the most poetic horoscopes you’ll ever read; to something more like The Bleed, the newsletter of the Call Your Girlfriend podcast*, which is a summary of news items, articles and pictures Aminatou and Anne wanted to talk about over the month but didn’t have time for.

*Have you listened to Aminatou’s interview with Hillary Clinton yet? Omg.

Read poetry

A reading slump is often indicative of our emotional state. If you’re feeling crappy and looking to see that reflected somewhere, read poetry. Poetry is raw emotion with all the exposition of a novel removed. Sometimes cutting to the heart of the matter will snap you out of that slump and reinvigorate more than just your reading life.

Shake things up

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One of my biggest ‘post-grad realisations’ is the importance of shaking up your routine. When you don’t have the beginning and ending of school terms doing it for you, you have to do it for yourself. This applies in all areas of your life, including reading. If all you’re reading is YA contemporaries and you’re feeling bored, pick up a novel that is completely outside of your wheelhouse. Try some non-fiction, or a classic, or look up the Belletrist pick for the month because it’s bound to be beautiful, clever and personally and politically relevant.

You’re not growing if you’re not changing, or however the saying goes.

S’later, slump!

Release

It’s Saturday, it’s summer and, although he doesn’t know it yet, everything in Adam Thorne’s life is going to fall apart. Relationships will change, he’ll change, but maybe, just maybe, he’ll find freedom in the release.

Time is running out though, because way across town a ghost has risen from the lake. Searching, yearning, she leaves a trail of destruction in her wake…

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Release by Patrick Ness is a sucker punch of a novel; (as per usual for Patrick. Why do I pay him to do this to me every two years?) a story that navigates coming out, bad boyfriends, worse families and drastic change. Though I am not (spoiler alert) a gay teenage boy on the cusp of coming out to my conservative Christian family, I connected deeply with the feelings expressed in this book, which is very much concerned with the wounds inflicted on us in our childhood and how they impact the person we grow up to be.

Release, if you didn’t know, is kind of an homage to Mrs Dalloway, so takes place over a 24 hour period with a narrative that is heavy on the flashbacks. Adam is dealing not only with the fact of his family – his father is the preacher at their local church and his whole family very conservative and homophobic – but also with a recent break up. His ex, Enzo, decided he was straight over the summer and treats Adam as if nothing ever happened between them while dating a girl that looks exactly like him.

Enzo is the worst. I kind of wanted to feel bad for him because his actions are obviously the result of an intolerant and heteronormative society… but he was just too much of an a-hole.

As in Mrs Dalloway, the novel has a split narrative, with Adam’s story interspersed with another separate but interconnected sequence of events. While Adam struggles, a girl in the community recently murdered by her drug addict boyfriend is possessed by a spirit from another world, and wanders the town seeking to avenge her own murder. It’s reminiscent of The Rest of us Just Live Here, but with a much more developed (and much sadder) plot.

While all of Patrick Ness’ books are emotional (the death of Manchee will haunt me forever THANKS PATRICK), with his past few novels it’s as if he’s moved from these grand, dramatic narratives (Chaos Walking, A Monster Calls) to smaller stories filled with emotional truths. Rather than deal with death and destruction (which, don’t get me wrong, he does exceptionally well), these days he writes novels filled with more ‘mundane’ concerns. The Rest of Us Just Live Here, for example, was the book about insecurity I wish existed when I was 17 (that whole I’m the only unnecessary member of the friend group thing? I got to the age of 22 thinking I was the only one who’d ever felt that way). Release is about the difficulty of recognising the good in your life – and accepting it, which in Adam’s case came in the form of Linus, probably my favourite love interest of the year so far (any real life Linuses out there who are into women… call me?) – when your whole life the people who are supposed to have loved and supported you have instead torn you down, bullied you, and made you feel like you’re all wrong.

Ness artfully uses the supernatural narrative – in which the world might end – to emphasise the importance of living your truth now. The day Adam decides to be himself no matter the consequences – certain rejection by his family – is a day when, unbeknownst to him, the world might end. The idea of now or never takes on an urgent significance without Adam even knowing it. Yes, it’s kind of a cheesy idea, but as Adam says, “sometimes you just got to eat the corn and enjoy it.”

Release is a beautiful and heart-rending novel from an author who never fails to surprise and challenge me. I hope everybody reads it.